BOSTON — As a 5-year old refugee from the former Soviet Union, Yevgeny Kutik came to the United States with music in his veins.
Back in Minsk, Belarus, Kutik’s father played trumpet in the Belarusian State Philharmonic, and his mother taught violin to gifted children. After she was dismissed from teaching due to quotas on Jewish faculty, Kutik’s mother decided she could not raise a family Belarus, where anti-Semitism was stoked by government leaders and the media.
“I was always very conscious of the fact it was not just us, but a wave of millions of people who left their lives because they were Jewish and treated unfairly,” said Kutik in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Along with Kutik’s maternal grandparents, the family emigrated from Belarus in 1990 and resettled in the Berkshires, Massachusetts. There, in one of the country’s classical music meccas, Kutik, now 31, attended a Conservative synagogue and became a bar mitzvah. His curiosity, however, always returned to the lands his family came from, whether Belarus or elsewhere in Europe.
“I was fascinated by how I was torn from this place and found myself growing up here as an American kid,” said Kutik.
One of the musician’s most influential teachers was the legendary Roman Totenberg, whose career began at age 9 in Lodz, Poland. When Kutik began studying with Totenberg, the latter was 91 and had mentored thousands of students.
“Roman personally knew composers whose music I study and play and try to do my best with. They had a different sound and approach to music back then, dictated by their background,” said Kutik of his former teacher, who died in 2012.
“I firmly believe who you are, your background, and how you grew up all go into performing and what you’re saying,” said Kutik. “Roman was giving lessons to students of his age to get his family bread and butter. I feel that I have this background, this story that is my family, and this is what I am conveying.”
After studying at Boston University and New England Conservatory, Kutik debuted with the career-making Boston Pops in 2003. Awards began to accumulate as the musician, who still calls Boston home, refined what has been called his “old-world sound that communicates a modern intellect.”
In three albums recorded since 2012, Kutik’s Russian-Jewish heritage reverberates with aplomb. His first album, called “Sounds of Defiance: Music of Shostakovich, Schnittke, Pärt, and Achron,” was a compilation of pieces written during painful episodes in the lives of those composers, each of whom used music to disrupt the party-line of dictatorial authorities.
“The composers risked their lives and reputations to say something,” said Kutik, mentioning Dmitri Shostakovich, a long-time target of Soviet authorities.
Kutik’s “Defiance” collection included two compositions by Joseph Achron — “Hebrew Melody” and “Hebrew Lullaby.” Achron was a turn-of-the-century Jewish composer who sought to create Jewish national music that resonated with the masses. The melodramatic “Hebrew Melody,” for instance, was based on a song Achron heard in a Warsaw synagogue as a child.
For Kutik’s 2014 album, “Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures,” he returned to a stack of sheet music Kutik’s mother packed in a suitcase before the family left Minsk in 1990.
Within that stack, Kutik discovered “miniature” works based on non-mainstream aspects of Russian culture, the kind of art once frowned upon by Soviet authorities. Kutik’s mother had packed, for instance, a waltz from Prokofiev’s “Cinderella,” and the Yiddish standard “Oyfn Pripetshik” (“On the Cooking Stove”).
Memorably, that song played during the Krakow ghetto liquidation scene in the film “Schindler’s List,” as the little girl in a red dress wanders through chaotic streets.
‘When, children, you will grow older, you will understand how many tears lie in these letters’
“When, children, you will grow older, you will understand how many tears lie in these letters, and how much crying,” wrote folk poet Mark Markovitch Warshawsky in “Oyfn Pripetshik,” written in the late 1890s.
“When you, children, will bear the Exile, and will be exhausted, may you derive strength from these letters, look in at them,” the song’s rabbi tells children gathered in his warm house to learn the Hebrew letters.
For Kutik, songs like “Oyfn Pripetshik” have become “the physical embodiment of our family and our journey,” he said. Kutik’s mother, after all, packed sheet music instead of clothes on the way to America.
An especially visceral performance for Kutik took place at the former death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2012. He was invited by March of the Living to perform during the annual pilgrimage of Jewish teens to the site where 1.1 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis.
“I did not know what to expect,” said Kutik of the trip to Poland. “At Birkenau a few of us were alone in this expansive field. I was chilled to my bone, but also the sun was out and the birds were singing. It was a weird kind of peace with the souls that had perished there, very poignant.”
Last October, Kutik released the album “Words Fail,” inspired by Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” series for piano.
‘I’ve always had trouble with words and really expressing what I want to express through words, it’s a flawed medium’
“I’ve always had trouble with words and really expressing what I want to express through words, it’s a flawed medium,” said Kutik, who is set to marry in June. “This is an album of songs about words, exploring the exact point where words fail us and we resort to other means,” he said.
After performing at March of the Living, Kutik decided to record Lera Aerbach’s “T’filah” (“Prayer”) for the album. Written in 1996, Auerbach’s violin solo is a reaction to the Holocaust that takes listeners from soothing liturgical sounds to a frenzied build-up of emotions.
As with his musical preferences, Kutik’s violin goes back a few generations. Crafted in Italy by Stefano Scarampella in 1915, the violin and its master have toured the world from Texas to Tokyo in recent years, but they always make space for Kutik’s Russian-Jewish musical roots.
“When words fail, music speaks,” said Kutik, repeating a Hans Christian Andersen quote he has long agreed with.
- Jewish Times
- Jewish music
- former Soviet Union
- classical music
- folk music
- March of the Living
- Boston University
- Krakow ghetto